CEO Interview – Kay Barnes


Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri from 1997-2007

Interview with Kay Barnes, Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri from 1997-2007

Mayor, when did you first understand the importance of leadership?
I’m not sure I can identify a specific moment. My cousin was Walter Cronkite. That was my maiden name. His father and my father were brothers. So, even though there was a difference in age between the two of us, I obviously grew up observing a member of the family being very engaged both nationally and internationally. So to whatever degree, that was an illustration of leadership. That was probably the individual and the circumstance that had the greatest impact on me early.

You’ve had a very interesting professional career that has included the political arena and academia. Please provide us a brief summary of your career.
After college, I married and had two children. Then I went back to school and got a masters in secondary education. After teaching one year, I realized that although I enjoyed teaching and training, I felt confined in a single classroom all day every day. So I left and became very involved in some community organizations focusing on the conflicts that were going on related to race relations, women’s liberation and so on. This was in the late 60’s and early 70’s. As a result of that I became involved in designing and leading workshops for people in suburban churches, focusing on topics such as poverty, housing, those kinds of issues that were impacting so many people of that time as they continue to today. I then moved from that into offering more and more workshops on personal development. At about the same time, this was in the mid to late 70’s, I got involved politically by running for office and being elected to the Jackson County legislature. Then I served a four-year term on the City Council of Kansas City. So during that eight year period I really had both of my careers, professional and political, moving forward. Then from 1983 until 1999, I focused totally on my professional career, was involved in a lot of public speaking and offering workshops and seminars around the country. Then I was elected as mayor and served for eight years and after that ran for congress, was defeated and since that time I’ve been a professor at Park University and am developing a center for leadership here.

So how did you develop your leadership philosophy; describe for us exactly what that is?
My leadership philosophy evolved over time. I have however, always believed that every person is a leader. Sometimes that’s thrust upon an individual within a family setting or within an organization. Sometimes that’s a chosen path for others. So, I think it is a cop-out for anyone to say “well, I’m just not a leader. I could never be a leader.” That’s simply not true. I also believe in very ‘inclusive’ leadership in the sense that there is a deep respect, an honoring of every person regardless of their particular activity or academic background or level of intellect. So, those two principles are probably the most important to me.

How would you describe your leadership style?
Over the years I’ve come to realize more and more that the most effective leaders are people who have a range of leadership behaviors available to them. So for example, as mayor, certainly as much as I possibly could, I would come from a consensus model and that probably is the most who I am; to really seek out involvement of others and move toward a conclusion together. However, I also know from experience that there are times when you have to be very authoritative and make decisions almost unilaterally, depending on what the situation calls for. So, again, the best leaders, or the most effective ones, are people who do understand that a single approach 100% of the time will not work. That you need to be flexible, you need to be creative, and you need to craft different approaches to different situations.

As a highly successful mayor of Kansas City, you were able to push through a lot of very exciting initiatives. Talk about how your consensus oriented leadership style enabled you to accomplish that.
When I was mayor we were facing multiple decisions that needed to be made and we ended up passing fourteen different ballot initiatives related to everything from police to fire, and the revitalization of the downtown. When I say ‘we’ or use words like ‘our’ that is so literally true. When I came into office there were already organizations that had begun to pull together a study on the viability of a new arena. The Civic Council had begun working with me on a study that looked at our downtown, what needed to happen, pulling together stakeholders from all across the community. My role, as Mayor, was to work with everybody and to be the person who articulated what ended up being the vision for the downtown and then doing everything I could, again working with hundreds even thousands of people, over eight years, to move those multiple initiatives forward at the same time.

Were you able to realize the initial vision or did it evolve as different people got involved?
I think that all of us involved in this process whether myself, as Mayor, city council members, civic leadership, all of us experienced the vision evolving. I think there were certain concepts that were there from the beginning; the viability of a new arena that would be strategically located in a synergistic manner and some kind of entertainment, retail, restaurant district that would be adjacent to our convention facilities. So, those two were probably there from the beginning along with recognizing that we needed to boost our housing capacity in downtown. So while they were identified from the beginning, how they came together and the multitude of details that needed to be dealt with got filled in as we went along. We realized our vision to a large extent. There are still a couple of pieces that need to be moved forward. But other than that, it all came together.

From your years of experience and your observations, what would you say are some of the inherent differences of leadership in the academia setting, the political setting and the corporate setting?
Probably the biggest difference in the political setting is so much of what you do is done publically. It’s like watching sausage being made in public which can be very distressing to observe, and yet the reality is that is what a democracy is all about. A political leader is being judged on a daily, even hourly basis, particularly when in elected office. Every move is being analyzed. Even though you may be in the middle of a process and still working on a solution, there are eyebrows raised and people assuming “well that will never work”. All of the things that need to happen in a process of reaching a goal, when done publicly, has a very different dimension.

What would you say has been one of your most challenging leadership moments over the course of your career so far?
My most challenging leadership period was probably when 9/11 occurred. I had been in office just over a year. It was obviously a traumatic event for everyone in this country. I remember so vividly that morning. Immediately upon learning about it, I went to the emergency control room. At that time I was at the police department because nobody, as you may recall, knew what was really happening and whether this was going to happen in other cities around the country. We also knew, because all the planes had to land all across the country, our airport in Kansas City was a target for that because of our strategic location in the middle of the country, and our particularly long runways. So we were having hundreds and hundreds of people landing, and obviously they didn’t know what they were going to do, and we needed to figure that all out.Another interesting moment was when I was at police headquarters. The fire chief was there, the police chief, our emergency management people, the city manager, we were all grouped there. The fire chief and the police chief came up to me and said you cannot stay and I’m sure I had a puzzled look on my face. They said we can’t have all of us at the same place, just in case something would occur. They suggested that I leave and go to another location in the city far enough away from downtown that if something did happen, it wouldn’t impact all of us. So that was quite a moment in and of itself.Then, not too long after that we had the anthrax show up in Kansas City in one of the postal facilities. Thank goodness nothing came of it, as far as anybody dying or being ill as a result of exposure. It was also a time when we really had to rally. As the spokesperson for the city, the Mayor, in those kind of situations is going to be on radio and television several times each day, holding press conferences and communicating with the public. Those events were particularly noteworthy.

Now you are heading a leadership program at Park University. As you teach young people in that program what are the two or three principles you most want them to remember?
I want people to remember the importance of being inclusive, recognizing the value of every person, and to be very tuned into that as they are exhibiting their own leadership skills. Also, key for all of us as individuals related to leadership, is self understanding. So in my teaching and training approaches I spend a lot of time helping people understand themselves more clearly. That means understanding what their strengths already are and also to understand where they’re vulnerable, and where they have some areas they need to work on whether that is communication skills, dealing with conflict, whatever it might be so that people don’t go into leadership positions blindly assuming that they are finished products. Because none of us are. So those are probably the two that I place the most emphasis on in my work.

How do you think leadership is evolving? Whether it’s due to economic changes, changes in politics, factors of trust, what’s causing leadership to change and how is it changing?
I think there is a gradual shift to a greater appreciation for collaboration, for consensus, for respecting people of all levels within an organization. I think that it is gradual and I’m not suggesting that that ends up being a model where we always use collaboration because as I have mentioned, we need a range of leadership options. We certainly have seen many examples in the past, particularly in the business world, where the leadership style has been autocratic, has been very controlling, has been limited to those at the very top and then everybody else “obeys”, so I think we’re seeing less and less of that and that will continue. I do believe that people, all people, are feeling more and more empowered which I think is very healthy, so people who are leading others with that mindset are going to have to be more responsive to all individuals over which they have some level of authority.

Who are some leaders, either legends or living people, that you most admire?
I’ve always admired Eleanor Roosevelt. I don’t know that she would be the best example in a formal leadership role. She was somebody who moved through a lot of personal issues, grew and developed as a result and also had incredible evolving sensitivity to all kinds of people in her day and age and brought their concerns to the fore. Although not obligated to do so, she did it because there was a real heartfelt connection. I have enormous admiration for her. I think Barak Obama demonstrates that newer style of leadership. He is very thoughtful and ambitious at the same time. He recognizes the importance of bringing really solid people around him. He involves experienced people who can move forward and exhibit leadership on their own and also be part of “his team”. So I think his style of leadership is not only an interesting one, but is proving to be very productive.

Aside from the President, who do you feel some of the best leaders in politics are today?
I have had the privilege of meeting many hard working people through my political involvement. I think there are both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate who may not be in the headlines every day but they are working hard on issues. They genuinely care about making this country the best country it can be and using whatever contribution they can to get that done. Sometimes these people are in the headlines, sometimes not. Also, people who are in congressional districts and are re-elected time after time; I believe they often bring a lot to the democratic process because they do have history with the process. They understand in a way that newcomers can’t what it takes in terms of building relationships, in terms of knowing issues in depth, of recognizing there are always going to be people who are not going to agree with you. You have multiple constituencies you have to deal with on a daily basis. That takes some time and the development of an institutional history. In fact, that’s one of the reasons that I am so opposed to term limits. I think term limits are taken care of in the ballot box. That’s where people have the opportunity to make that decision. And to arbitrarily eliminate people or move people out of office simply because their four or eight years are over, I think is foolish.

To sum this up, what is the leadership legacy that you would like to make sure that you’re known for in your lifetime?
People sometimes ask me what I feel best about having been Mayor and expecting me to say our downtown revitalization, or the money that we were able to generate for some of our basic services. All of those are really important to me. And yes, to some extent, I hope people feel good about that too. On the other hand, what I feel best about, whether or not it will be a legacy in the mind of others, is the over 100 boards and commissions to which the Mayor of Kansas City, MO is able to appoint people. I feel so good about those appointments because those were the people and the boards and commissions that were able to do so much during those eight years. So to those hundreds of people, I say ‘thank you’ because they were so much a part of what we were able to accomplish.

Mayor, you acknowledge that being able to leave a wake of leaders who are effective at what they do is very rewarding. Have you seen that “ripple effect” in education as students learn and then apply leadership principles?
At Park University we are blessed in having so many students, both in the undergraduate programs and also our graduate programs, who are here from other countries. Just on the Park University campus we have over 100 countries represented. Just one example of the impact that a particular course or a particular professor can have that go way beyond the individual in the course, occurred about a year ago when one of our professors was teaching a course on Ethics in Government. At the end of the course, one of the students in the class who comes from a small European country came up to her and said that he would like some additional materials or resources on the topic of ‘ethics in government’ beyond what they had used in class. She said certainly I’ll be glad to provide that to you and why are you particularly interested in pursuing this further? He said, well at the end of every class with you I’ve been emailing all of the information to my best friend back in my country. And he led the coup a few months ago which took over the country and he’s now the president. So he’s very interested in learning all about ethics in government. She of course was astonished at what he had to say and as she has shared that story with the rest of us. It’s illustrative of the impact that can spread when bright students are exposed to new and important ideas. It’s impact can even go way beyond the borders of this country.For many leaders the reward and the legacy of leadership is unknown because they may never know all the lives that they have touched. Therefore the key is to give the best effort each and every day .

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